Chris Brown’s smashing post-assault comeback

The media who are glossing over his past abuse send the message that assaulting women is little more than an inconvenience to your career.

"Don't f—k with my old bitch, it's like a bad fur/ Every industry n—— done had her/ Shook the tree like a pumpkin just to smash her/ B*tch is breaking codes, but I'm the password."

It might not be classy to trash-talk your ex, but trash-talking your ex after one of your main claims to fame is that you violently beat her up is apparently the formula for music chart success. The "smash her" line is the coup de grace here – an onomatopoeic punch to both warn other guys that his ex has had (too much) sex, and a trigger back to the fact Brown once, well, smashed Rihanna’s face in.

Chris Brown’s fifth album Fortune hit the UK chart number one spot this Sunday, marking the full rehabilitation of Brown’s career after his assault of then-girlfriend Rihanna on the evening of the 2009 Grammys. In the excitement, Brown’s fans took to Twitter en masse as #TeamBreezy to celebrate Brown’s return: amongst their assertions that "Chris Brown can hit me any time" and "I don’t know why Rihanna complained" were the more worrying – for seeming to be more legitimate – arguments that Brown is "sorry" (a claim invalidated largely by his continued classic-abuser positioning of himself as a victim of "smears") or that Brown was very young in 2009, and grew up in a tough environment (that may be so but I think “he had a bad childhood” grows old quickly when a grown man’s strangling you until you start losing consciousness).

Rihanna’s evolving response to what happened in 2009 was evoked to further brush Brown’s abuse under the carpet, particularly the fact she collaborated with Brown on a single earlier this year. And as Brown reaches number one, Rihanna is actually used to distract from what Brown did. This goes beyond Chris Brown’s attempts, in his recent music, to slut-shame Rihanna for having a sex life – because when you can no longer control a woman with violence, you at least have recourse to the good old-fashioned tactic of branding her a ‘slut’. It extends to the opprobrium Rihanna receives for the work she’s produced since the 2009 Grammys: while her "Love The Way You Lie" video, exploring the emotions of a toxic relationship, was accused of ‘soft porn-ifying’ abuse, her video for 2011’s "Man Down" was criticised for ‘glorifying’ female violence because it shows a woman’s response to rape. It’s Rihanna, not Brown, who faces the ‘damned if you do, damned if you don’t’ of public scrutiny.

This focus on Rihanna (particularly the "if she can forgive him why can’t you?" line familiar to anyone who’s dealt with domestic violence) and foregrounding of her ambiguous response distracts from the focus on the unambiguous brutality of Brown’s actions in 2009. After all, can you think of a less subtle act than smashing a woman’s face against a car window? How Rihanna deals with what happened is her prerogative, but that it should eclipse the bare facts of what Brown did seems convenient for abuse-apologist #TeamBreezy.

The debate about whether Rihanna’s musical collaboration with Brown ‘rehabilitates’ his public persona may seem like a dilemma unique to Universe Celebrity, but it is based on a mundane truth: domestic violence is both complicated and simple. It’s about unique intimate dynamics and it’s also about crime, clear lines unacceptably crossed. How the media handle the public and the private in this is crucial to what messages society receives about domestic violence. A decade ago, football fans made excuses for Paul Gasgoine’s violence against his partner on the grounds that they supported him as a footballer, not what he did off-pitch. A similar line is being evoked by #TeamBreezy, while Brown breaks the ‘privacy’ by continually publicly justifying himself. And this is perhaps the most frustrating thing about Chris Brown’s public rehabilitation: it utilises the patriarchal ‘private sphere’ switch-and-bait to both minimise and legitimise violence against women.

When you’re rapping about your ex in the vein of “don’t fuck with my old bitch, it’s like a bad fur”, the already-flimsy Gazza-argument that the work for which you’re renowned is removed from your ‘private’ violence seems unconvincing; yet in the media spotlight it’s Rihanna whose every move is fair game for criticism. The sham act of policing sexual propriety that manifests in the media’s mock-concern for Rihanna’s ‘dignity’ when she expresses herself sexually is not only part of a reactionary positioning female sexuality as dangerous (making yourself seem "available" will get you beaten up) but also plays into the machismo that legitimises Brown’s violence (after all, it doesn’t matter what you do to a whore, does it?).

As Rihanna is chastised for expressing her sexuality, Brown’s violence – and his lyrics relating to violence – are positioned variously as the preserve of the ‘private sphere’ and ‘artistic licence’. It’s a double-standard of privacy in favour of male violence "behind closed doors" that’s so embarrassingly obvious it puts Henri-Levy’s bizarre 2011 defence of Strauss-Kahn as a "friend of women" to shame.

Because that’s another thing about domestic violence: it’s behind closed doors. The recent domestic violence awareness campaign by make-up artist Lauren Luke was so powerful because it bound an everyday, intimate act – Luke putting on her make-up, which her fans are used to watching – with the fact that every day women use make-up to cover their bruises. Women’s abuse is largely hidden; saying its irrelevant when a public figure commits it contributes to this silencing.

Chris Brown’s comeback, and the media who are glossing over his past abuse, send the message that assaulting women is little more than an inconvenience to your career – you can turn it into bravado, along the lines of “bitch be breaking codes but I’m the password”, or, à la Strauss-Kahn, you can cite the "private sphere" defence: win win. Either way, it’s the right of women to live lives in which they can express themselves, safe from violence, that is lost.

Follow Heather McRobie on Twitter as @heathermcrobie

Chris Brown onstage during the 2012 BET Awards in Los Angeles. Photograph: Getty Images
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120 years on, and rugby league is still patronised as “parochial”

Even as Leeds and Hull Kingston Rovers do battle in the 2015 Challenge Cup final, the century-old conflict between rugby league and rugby union isn’t over.

When Leeds and Hull Kingston Rovers step out onto the hallowed Wembley turf on Saturday afternoon it will be a celebration, regardless of the result. The final of rugby league’s oldest competition is expected to be watched by over 85,000 fans, with countless more watching on the BBC. And the reason for celebration? This year’s Challenge Cup final falls on rugby league’s 120th birthday. 

Saturday will mark exactly 120 years to the day that the custodians of 22 clubs rendez-voused at the George Hotel in Huddersfield to split from the amateur Rugby Football Union (RFU). The teams who formed the guerrilla organisation were dependent on millworkers, miners and dockers who unlike their more affluent and privately-educated southern counterparts, could ill-afford to miss work to play rugby. As such, the Northern Football Union (which later changed its name to the Rugby Football League) announced its separation from the RFU and immediately accepted the principal of receiving payment for playing. Taking the schism as a declaration of war, the RFU struck back by issuing lifetime bans to any player associated with its northern kin. 

Neither league’s revolutionary spirit nor the promise of a pay cheque lead to a change in fortunes, though. It remains, according to one journalist, a “prisoner of geography”, ensnared by its older kin. Wembley is its parole, the chains are off, for but a short while, as league earns a pass out of its Northern confinement. Union, on the other hand, is the dominant code in terms of finances, participation numbers and global reach, while league is still viewed as a “parochial” sport. 

To understand why league is viewed as parochial, and union global, the writings of the Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci on cultural hegemony are particularly useful. Union embodies the resource-rich and powerful historic bloc, institutionalised through its strong standing within public-schools and its big-business connections. League, on the other hand represents the downtrodden and plucky subaltern. Its agency has only stretched so far as to command superior TV figures perhaps a ringing endorsement from the masses.

In order to quell its fellow oval-chasing brethren there are examples of union shockingly suppressing the spread of league. In France the 13-a-side code had overthrown union’s dominance as hundreds of clubs switched to le treize towards the end of the 1930s. As the Second World War divided France, union bigwigs held office with members of the Nazi-collaborating Vichy government who were persuaded to outlaw rugby league once and for all. 

On 19 December 1941 a decree forced league clubs to hand over kit, stadia and funds to their union counterparts. The game has never fully recovered in France, although two Frenchman are in contention to play for Rovers on Saturday – Kevin Larroyer and John Boudebza, testament to the art of treizistance.

There are other instances of union dignitaries stifling league’s growth in places as wide-ranging as Japan, Serbia, South Africa and Italy. Examples exist in the United Kingdom too. Cambridge student Ady Spencer was banned by the RFU from playing in the Varsity Rugby Union match having enjoyed the rigours of league as a youngster in his native Warrington. The incident was subject to a parliamentary motion in 1995 being condemned as an “injustice and interference with human rights”.

But even as rugby union followed its heretic sibling into professionalism a century after the split there’s little to suggest the relationship has changed, highlighted this year through the case of Sol Mokdad. A Lebanese national, Mokdad will be watching the final in Beirut with friends, but it’s a far cry from where he was just a few months ago – locked up in a jail cell in Dubai at the behest of UAE Rugby Union (UAERU). 

“I moved to the UAE in 2006 and set up rugby league there a year later. I was arrested for fraud and for setting up a competition without the UAERU’s permission,” he tells me. “I was baffled as they’re a completely different body. It’s like the Cricket Federation demanding that they control all baseball matches. We’d just got a huge deal with Nissan to sponsor our competition which the UAERU weren’t happy about. They said I’d impersonated their president in order to get the money which was a complete lie. They weren’t too happy that we were getting a lot of exposure in western media outlets too, because I’d suggested that the UAE would be a good place to host the World Cup, that’s where it all started to go wrong.”

“I was at a corporate event when I got a phone call to say that UAERU had ordered my arrest. I tried ringing my mate George Yiasemides who was the COO of UAE Rugby League. He’d promised to help me out, but he didn’t want anything to do with me. He sold me down the river. I was chucked into a cockroach-infested cell. The bathrooms were covered in s**t  and I was locked up for 14 days with no contact with the outside world.” 

Eventually an agreement was reached and all Mokdad had to do was sign a document which would guarantee his release, subject to conditions. Easy enough right? But as he explains it wasn’t. 

“They sent me to the wrong police station and when I eventually got hold of the document they’d added conditions I hadn’t agreed too. I had to make a public apology on all of our social media, destroy all documentation and was told that I was financially liable for any damages or legal fees that may come up in the future. Any monies gained from our sponsorship was to be handed over to the UAERU, as well as having to agree to never participate in any rugby activity in the UAE again.”

Homeless, broke and jobless, Mokdad returned to his native Lebanon and he is unsure of where his future lies. “I definitely want to stay in the sport however I can. It was incredibly hard to leave what I’d created in Dubai.” he says. “I still think about it now. It was so surreal.” 

He’s backing Leeds in the final, in case you were wondering. Although it all makes Saturday’s game seem rather irrelevant if in 2015 you can be jailed for establishing a sport. Perhaps it shows more than ever, that after 120 years of separation, rugby league is still trying to shake off the shackles of its older brother.